The Embezzlers

By Eilene Lyon

A lesson from my personal history that I was slow to learn: there is a certain type of person in this world who steals from his or her employer. They don’t just destroy the trust of their bosses, though. The impulses that drive embezzlers taint all their relationships.

I have a degree in accounting from Ohio State. From 1987 to 2009, I worked as a freelance bookkeeper for a variety of businesses in Durango. For 20 years, one of these was a resort condominium complex. The owner of the management company hired Cynthia to run the business in the late 1980s.

He was usually out of town himself and therefore had little oversight. He authorized me to sign checks, as well as doing the books. That’s a number-one no-no. Certainly I had many opportunities to embezzle funds, but the thought of doing so gave me the willies. And it blinded me to the possibility that someone else might be doing just that.

I was a nerdy, introverted bookkeeper, but Cynthia was a firecracker. She did an excellent job of bringing in new corporate clients for short- and long-term rentals. She worked her charm on me, too, befriending me to keep me close and on her team.

Statistics show that one thing most embezzlers have in common is living beyond their means. This might seem like an obvious tell, but Cynthia had a ready explanation. She came from a family of high achievers. Both her siblings were doctors. She had been part-owner of an oil company in Texas and made a ton of money from that period of her life.

She lived with her parents then, and she stored in their attic many a wardrobe box full of designer clothes – at least a dozen high-end ski suits, for example. She had so many shoes that she pasted photographs on the outsides of the boxes. Imelda Marcos had nothing on Cynthia.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

To win my trust, she would pay for me to visit a dermatologist, because she knew my skin problems bothered me. We would go out dancing and she’d dress me in fancy sequined dresses and one of her numerous fur coats. I loved being in her orbit. It was fun.

I’m not sure what tipped off our boss, but he seemed sure that Cynthia had something to do with missing funds. The bottom line didn’t add up given the increase in business. I had to put in overtime to figure out how she pulled it off – and I lost another part-time job because of it.

Within a year or two, I met Cheryl, a friend of a friend. Like Cynthia, Cheryl wore very nice clothes, had expensive manicures and haircuts, but she lived in a trailer. She worked for Amoco (now BP) and later for a local building supply business. She claimed to be dating a big-wig in county government, but said his mother kept them from getting married. Funny, but not once did I ever see her with this guy.

Cheryl gave me a puppy (sweetest dog, ever) and helped me get together with a co-worker of hers (though she also seemed bent on sabotaging that relationship). It wasn’t until after she and I had parted ways that I read she had stolen more than $120K from the building supply company, nearly bankrupting the owner. Color me unsurprised.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

I don’t recall the name of the third embezzler, since we weren’t acquainted, so I’ll call her Ann. Ann had worked for a property investor for many years. He owned one of the condos where I worked and was good friends with my employer there. After his experience with Cynthia, my boss began to suspect Ann of stealing from his buddy and recommended me as an investigator.

I had to go to Albuquerque and bring back box upon box of company records to examine for wrong-doing. Ann, dressed to the nines, piled on the charm when I came to the office to get the records (having found the place after she’d given me incorrect directions). It rang hollow. I’d seen this twice and finally gotten a clue. I didn’t trust her for an instant.

My search turned up the expected theft. Ann promptly got fired, much as Cynthia had. It bothered me that neither one was ever prosecuted for her misdeeds. It’s possible that the men who employed them didn’t want exposure for having trusted these thieves.

Cheryl was prosecuted, but I don’t know if she did time. I heard that some years after leaving Colorado, Cynthia got arrested for check fraud.

Perhaps by sharing these experiences, I can help some business owner or other organization to spot a potential problem. Evidence is ambivalent about whether women are more likely than men to commit this crime, but people in finance and bookkeeping are most likely to steal company or government funds.

Men tend to steal more money than women and small businesses are frequent targets. Large businesses also lose money to employee theft, though, and in much higher dollar amounts.

I can’t say I understand the type of insecurity that drove the embezzlers I’ve described, but it’s sad. They were all very intelligent, clever women who could have succeeded at anything they put their minds to; they chose to take the dishonorable path instead.

Feature image: by todd kent on Unsplash

46 thoughts on “The Embezzlers

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      1. Those are good skills to have. My daughter has been able to parlay her bookkeeping knowledge into a nice little side business for herself. My response to being given a spreadsheet is, What do you expect me to do with this? It’s just a bunch of numbers.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. As I write this, the former finance director for the City of Durango is awaiting trial for embezzlement. I read about it in the local news all the time (and yes, non-profits get hit, too). As my experience shows, there are many others who never make the news. It’s a very common crime.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Unfortunately this doesn’t surprise me at all. A few months ago a blogger put a survey on her post about self check outs, and if you’ve ever been tempted to take something. She did not have an answer choice about no, I would not take anything because stealing is wrong no matter what. Cheating, or evading laws has become commonplace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an odd survey, then. As I was writing this, though, I had to change one sentence. At first I said that embezzling money had never crossed my mind, but I realized that would be a lie. Of course it crossed my mind, but I would never do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read something once that to think about something is normal and reasonable. To act on it is a problem. And I mentioned to her that the survey was missing an answer

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  2. Years ago, I had a similar experience when I was a retail store manager. Doing my bookkeeping for the store, I realized my assistant manager was embezzling from the cash register. I ended up being part of the police sting operation to catch her in the act so she could be prosecuted. Months later I found out that she weaseled out of doing time because it was a first offense. Great, huh?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we just see the tip of the iceberg. So many of the people suffer nothing more than losing their job and not having a reference. So, it will keep happening. And embezzlement is only one way that employees scam their employers. I managed the condos for a couple years and experienced other horrors. What a horrid job that was!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Gosh I hope not. But the lines are so much less clear that I worry. I saw a research study recently that said that people aren’t upset by Trump’s lying because they believe most people lie! Most people aren’t trustworthy was the number one response. I was shocked because I think most people are fundamentally honest. Guess I’m naive.

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      2. I tend to think most people are fundamentally good. Maybe there’s a lot of projection going on. Dishonest people expect that everyone else is dishonest, too.

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  3. That’s the thing right there. They COULD have been very successful without having to do that, but there was an impulse that turned into a habit that turned into who they were. Maybe it’s like any other addiction in that the more you do, the more you need.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. And let’s face it, they go for broke. You think to yourself, how can they possibly think they’re going to get away with it? But their mindset isn’t concerned with the repercussions.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have seen exactly what you described too many times. Part of the trouble is (I am not shifting blame here) is that many businesses do not have adequate safeguards in place. The old saying goes something like this a fence or a lock will not keep a dishonest person out but will keep an honest person honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, which is why I pointed out how I was given improper oversight and authority. When my husband added employees to his business, I made sure he took responsibility for proper oversight so it couldn’t happen to him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, I had no idea embezzling was so prevalent. Your investigative skills came in handy — though I appreciate your humility, admitting how easy it was to be duped.
    When we lived in Nebraska, there was a man at our church who was the director of the art museum. A really nice, classy guy. Turned out he’d been embezzling from the museum for years. It started out small with every intention of repaying, but then there was the car for the wife, the two kids who went to prestigious universities…. He actually did go to jail and the family was pretty much ruined. Both my husband and I were shocked beyond belief. We never would have suspected him of that kind of wrong-doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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